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What’s Happening? Check the Auto Industry!

Alan Rooks
By Alan Rooks Editor in Chief, Manufacturing Engineering

The U.S. auto industry is a good indicator of a lot of current trends. Like many industries, it has to continually reinvent itself to keep up with consumer and manufacturing trends, as our lead feature by Bill Koenig on page 41 explains. It is also being buffeted by political trends, as negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among the U.S., Canada and Mexico may—or may not—upend a very complex supply chain.

Likewise, the Trump administration wants to freeze U.S. fuel economy goals, while California—the most populous U.S. state—wants them to continue to climb. And automakers may be keeping a wary eye on what’s happening over at Harley-Davidson Inc. After the EU announced tariffs on motorcycles made in the U.S. in retaliation for U.S. tariffs, Harley-Davidson said it would move some manufacturing overseas, only to be threatened by a boycott by some U.S. motorcycle buyers.

Meanwhile, the burgeoning ride-sharing industry and the race by several companies to develop
self-driving vehicles have captured the imagination of the public, but the former may lead to fewer people buying cars and latter may be a sinkhole for R&D investment.

As we mull these macro trends, what’s happening to automaking itself? For one, small, powerful combustion engines and advanced transmissions will continue to be developed, and the focus on weight reduction will remain. Likewise, despite uncertain demand, there will be increased development of electric and hybrid vehicles, as Geoff Giordano explains on page 50.

This trend will likely lead to major changes in the supply chain. For example, as Bill Koenig reports, Eaton Corp. formed a new eMobility business, which combined products and plants from its electrical and vehicle units. The company will invest more than $500 million over five years to develop new products for vehicle electrification.

In materials, the growth in use of ultra high-strength steels (UHSS) will grow, and dramatic weight reductions have already been achieved with these materials, leading to changes in the manufacturing process. Likewise, the use of multiphase advanced high-strength steel (AHSS) in auto frames is also growing sharply, leading to manufacturing changes in that area as well. (And just to keep things inter-esting, U.S. steel tariffs have sharply increased the prices of steel that automakers use.)

Likewise, advances in aluminum are changing welding and riveting pro-cesses, and automakers are learning how to join dissimilar materials.

Clearly, automakers have a lot on their plate. Will overall demand for cars and trucks decline due to self-driving vehicles and ride-sharing? Will trade and tariff issues roil the waters even more, or will things settle down? How will vehicle development process change to keep up with these and other trends? Will I ever be able to spell the word tariff without SpellCheck? Stay tuned!

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